Lockheed Martin is moving into the Project Tech Facility at Port SA.
Port San Antonio, located on the former Kelly Air Force Base, is one of six locations on the the final list of locations looking to house the U.S. Space Command. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Space Command will direct military operations in outer space, but its new and permanent home will be one of six cities on Earth, and local leaders believe Port San Antonio is best suited to support its mission.

The Air Force recently announced Port San Antonio made it onto the final list of locations looking to house the Space Command, a functional command of the Space Force, which was established nearly a year ago. 

“We were really excited to see that we were specifically identified, because it’s validation of a lot of the work that we’ve been doing with the companies that are doing these high-tech applications or military missions,” said Jim Perschbach, president and CEO of Port San Antonio, the former military base turned tech and industrial hub. 

“We are on the cusp of some amazing things happening in the next 50 years, and a lot of the potential of converging and connecting those technologies exists right here in San Antonio.”

Until now, Space Command has been based at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, Colorado, one of the six finalists. The others are Kirtland AFB in New Mexico, Offutt AFB in Nebraska, Patrick AFB in Florida, and Redstone Army Airfield in Alabama. 

But that could change early next year after Department of Defense (DoD) decision-makers have made site visits to each location, evaluated each city and finalist according to a set of criteria, and selected a headquarters location.

If they choose San Antonio, the command would bring at least 1,400 jobs to the region and attract related industries and development. Space Command would give San Antonio its fifth major command, joining the Air Education and Training Command at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, and Army North, Army South, and the Army’s Installation Management Command, all at JBSA-Fort Sam Houston.

For Space Command, the location would provide immediate access to mission-oriented facilities, technologies, and capabilities in place at Port San Antonio and proximity to resources such as the Southwest Research Institute, the 16th Air Force, and academic institutions across the city. 

“The Space Command pursuit is really exciting because whenever you have the opportunity to bring a headquarters to a facility, it gets everybody’s attention,” Perschbach said. “But a headquarters, whether it’s [military or corporate], tends to be relatively small and relatively administrative. The real prize is where the work is being done, where people are developing those technologies and buying solutions and putting people to work.”

Port San Antonio’s past life

Proposed by local leaders as the specific site for Space Command in San Antonio, the Port stands out as the only finalist that’s not an Air Force base, though in some ways, it resembles one.

Home to Kelly Air Force Base from 1917 until 2001, the Port is a sprawling campus with an industrial airport and runways, a rail port and rail service, massive plane hangars, mixed-use office buildings, and even housing. 

Kelly Air Force Base’s Billy Mitchell Village in 1949. Credit: Courtesy / USAF History Office

It sits adjacent to the fenced JBSA-Lackland, and nearly half of the Port’s 14,000 workers are Air Force personnel, including those who work for the Air Force’s Cyber Command, the Air Force Medical Operations Agency, and the Air Force Civil Engineer Center.

Nevertheless, the Port operates independently of any military or government entity as a commercial and industrial campus occupied by 80 public and private-sector tenants in tech, aerospace, logistics, and manufacturing. Millions of dollars have been invested in upgrades to the 1,900-acre campus. 

“What we are building is a place that connects and converges technologies,” Perschbach said. “If you start looking at all of these advanced military commands, you’re going to hear ‘convergence’ an awful lot. And what it means is making sure that we’re … using systems thinking to connect things.”

As an example, Perschbach described how technologies currently being developed by the Port’s tenants could be combined to build habitation on the lunar surface or support the installation of satellites that harness and transmit solar power for use on Earth.

Christopher Combs, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at the University Texas at San Antonio, said it’s obvious to him, based on Space Command’s role, though still somewhat ambiguous, why the DoD would consider San Antonio.

“It sounds like kind of everything above 100 kilometers is what they’re calling space in their domain, so you imagine there’s going to be a lot of satellite-related work, some missile defense and tracking, and maybe some launch-type things,” Combs said. And for that, the level of cyber capabilities in San Antonio will be important as will the space program UTSA is building out with new training certificates, degree programs, faculty, and a hypersonic wind tunnel.

Comparisons with Colorado

The provisional headquarters for Space Command is located in Colorado, where space-focused infrastructure is already established at Schriever AFB and Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station, home of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD). 

“If you’re looking at it and you’re saying, ‘When it comes to aeronautics, how on earth can anybody compete with Colorado?’ Those are the guys who have all the physical stuff that we’re throwing up in space,” Perschbach said. “But the way we look at it, the physical stuff is less important than what we have in San Antonio.”

President and CEO of Port San Antonio Jim Perschbach speaks during the announcement of the Boeing San Antonio F-18 contract in 2019. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

“The command and control of those devices that are up there, which is cybersecurity and communications, we do better than Colorado does,” he said. “The ability to integrate these new technologies, the ability to develop and incorporate these technologies, we do better than Colorado.”

Another Colorado asset touted in a report quoting the Colorado Springs mayor is the Air Force Academy, which can supply a ready-made workforce. 

In a recent letter to the secretary of the Air Force, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) called San Antonio “a natural fit” for Space Command, with the city having played a role in hosting the Space Force’s first recruits for basic military training. 

In addition, he said, “the vibrant industries in San Antonio paired with its diverse population and unique culture would provide SPACECOM Headquarters with a large pool of highly-skilled, mission-driven workers.”

Perschbach acknowledged that there are strong contenders among the finalists and places where, like the Port, advances in tech, medicine, and aeronautics are being developed. 

He said that what sets the Port apart is its capabilities in multiple areas that can be connected together to test, build, and manufacture products in a real-world environment. 

Advantage of flexibility

Port San Antonio also meets the requirement for the physical space needs of Space Command and also a master plan to provide for it. The “shades of blue” plans, as Perschbach calls them, call for a series of facilities that are open to the public and designed for collaboration gradually transforming across the campus into an area that is more restrictive, classified, and open only to people permitted to enter. 

“And because we are not an active military installation, we have a little bit more flexibility – in fact, a lot more flexibility – in terms of how these buildings are built, financed, and structured,” Perschbach said. 

The Port's 1,900-acre campus has a foundation in aerospace and manufacturing. In recent years, cybersecurity has been a top growth industry. Photo courtesy of Port San Antonio.
The Port’s 1,900-acre campus has a foundation in aerospace and manufacturing. In recent years, cybersecurity has been a top growth industry. Credit: Courtesy / Port San Antonio

The Air Force’s screening criteria also outlines a requirement for energy resilience and security to protect the city’s critical infrastructure from cyberattacks. 

In June, City Council approved $2.5 million in funding for a cybersecurity operations center that will be located at the Port. In partnership with CPS Energy, the center is intended to protect critical infrastructure – including energy grids, manufacturing operations, telecommunications, transportation networks, and other essential sectors.

For defense contractors relocating to San Antonio, it’s the quality of life they are seeking the most, said Steve Thomas, first vice president in the local office of commercial real estate firm CBRE, who has handled deals totaling 60,000 square feet of space in San Antonio for such businesses this year. 

A pipeline of educated workers also is critical. “The ability to recruit from UTSA was important,” Thomas said. “One of the deals that we transacted was a cybersecurity group that was basically launched by all the armed forces – Army, Navy, Marines – and they consolidated” in an office downtown.

When Thomas represented clients considering the Port, they found it attractive because of the available space and infrastructure. For that reason, he believes the Port is well-positioned to attract the Space Command headquarters. 

“San Antonio is a very military-friendly city, always has been, and we’re living it now more and more,” Thomas said. “In the past we haven’t had the available product to attract some of these larger organizations. But that’s changing.”

Combs said San Antonio is a city that’s frequently getting its name tossed around for a lot of space-related industry, including for a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) large-scale hypersonics manufacturing and research center.

“Of seven or eight cities listed, San Antonio was one of them,” he said. “You’re starting to hear San Antonio get mentioned for a lot of this and so you start to feel like they’re getting at something. I’m not sure what it’s going to be, but with all these different possibilities for different agencies, organizations that are realizing what San Antonio has to offer, I do kind of feel like it’s a matter of time.”

Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is the business beat reporter at the San Antonio Report.